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The Map Changes the Territory

Today our world and technologies exhibit unprecedented complexity. It's a safe bet that within your organization, the injunction to keep it simple has never felt more right. Our collective turning to simplicity is, effectively, a management technique. We are trying to clarify and manage everything from multilevel families to snarled traffic flows and the moral mazes of cloning.

Yet simplicity has its limits, too: The more complexity information exhibits, the more we must guard against oversimplification. Einstein said it succinctly: Everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.

With the volume of new information doubling every year, information design needs an analogous management technique. You can think of an information-management solution—something that makes the page think like a network—as an information map. This is not a site map. Rather, visualize a map of the information on a site that would function like a home page while also providing user guidance.

Ideally, the map works with but does not hide or interfere with the information on the page. See the discussion later regarding transparency: seeing both the information and the management of the information at a glance.

Typically, a map describes a physical territory. It may even stand in for that territory in some instances when the territory cannot be seen (for example, when a militia is about to go somewhere it has never been before). Map commentators have noted this phenomenon and have described it as "the map becomes the territory."

But, as always, the Web behaves differently. Preparing our information maps, we stumbled upon a surprise. Given digital information, the map not only describes and becomes the territory. The map changes the territory.

The implication here is that as we free our formatting from the alphabetic matrix in order to make our information as simple as possible but not simpler, the information map that guides us has its own logic. The formal logic of the map changes what we see, changes the meaning of the information, and builds new meaning into the information. This was the original inspiration for the Form Rules above. And some users intuitively sense this because they can see that the Web is changing the logic of the pages it hosts.

In short, we must prepare our information-management structures for a new reality: the advent of dynamic information, or information in motion. The first step in this preparation is adopting a new vantage point from which to view both the form and the content of the information.

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